Monday, May 20, 2013


Arendt's introduction is worth lingering over, or picking its pockets and moving on, or both.  She likens Benjamin to a "Pearl Diver" and leads off part of the essay with this epigraph

Full fathom five thy father lies,
of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange (The Tempest I,2)

Which makes me see that I, at least, critically misremember it because I remember it as being "Nothing of him doth fade" which means something substantially different.  Doth that as it may the comparison is to one who dives down and from the bottom of the sea retrieves treasures which are formed from, but not identical to, the original bearer: the fathers, Judaism, tradition.  Perhaps we collect them because they are "rich and strange" or because they remind us of the past and serve as a mnemonic, perhaps as a souvenir of a lost sentimental relationship, perhaps as a way of "throwing illumination on the future" but we aren't collecting them for their mere monetary value- we don't collect the "pearls that were his eyes" because they are pearls, but because they "were his eyes." That's my own preliminary interpretation and I think you have to hit "were" and "his" and perhaps "eyes" all separately and equally as possible emphases.  We treasure them because they are of the past, because they are rich and wonderful, and because they were a way of seeing even though they are now occluded and blind.

Arendt continues on to say:

"Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically it becomes tradition.  Walter Benjamin knew that the break with tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past.  In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissilbility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of "peace of mind,"  the mindless peace of complacency.  "Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions" (Schriften I, 571)...the discoverers and lovers of this destructive power [the power to 'tear out of context, to destroy'] originally were inspired by an entirely different intention, the intention to preserve; and only because they did not let themselves be fooled by the professional "preservers" all around them did they finally discover that the destructive power of quotations was "the only one which still contains the hope that something from this period will survive--for no other reason than that it was torn out of it."' In this form of "thought fragments," quotations have the double task of interrupting the flow of the representation with "transcendent force" (Schriften I, 142-43) and at the same time of concentrating within themselves that which is presented.  AS to their weight in Benjamin's writings, quotations are comparable only to the very dissimilar Biblical citations which so often replace the immanent consistency of argumentation in medieval treatises."

I can't really speak to that except to juxtapose it to this contemporaneous American practice which, I presume, had its counterpart in Europe but which at the time of Arendt's writing of this introduction was not known or understood in a literary sense--and perhaps we owe its current status in the academy as a field of study precisely to people like Benjamin or people who read Benjamin even though its pretty clear that Benjamin himself would have scorned it.

From page 49 of Writing with Scissors:

"The scrapbooks's ability to transform trash to riches and power, or at least to authority, to make clippings valuable through recontexualizing and repurposing, slid along two axes.  The first was the shift in audience--transporting the clippings either to other people, for whom the clippings would be a rich novelty, or to a future self, who would need the gleaned information and items and could put them to uses unavailable to the earlier self holding the pastepot.  Creating value through a shift in audience implied that the scrapbook maker's selection from the newspaper at the time of pasting were worth preserving and passing along.  Through the coercion of choosing and rearranging items--and obliterating the pasted side of the clipping--the scrapbook maker enforced his or her will on the reader.  The second was moving materials from the flickering ephemerality of an old newspaper into the permanence of a book: giving it the earmarks of value.
As they scissored in and scissored out, amassing and excluding, scrapbook makers imposed their will on what they read.  They created a version of the newspaper that preserves only what they considered worth preserving, and organized that material within their own structure of arrangements and juxtaposition."  
So central was the idea of the scrapbook to 19th century social life and the family that "the scrapbook" and the inheritance of the scrapbook were (apparently) familiar literary motifs.  WWS offers several examples including the fictional story of an adoptive daughter who, cut out of her inheritance by evil relations receives "only" her adopted father's carefully constructed scrapbook of financial information and stories from the newspaper. Embedded in the pages of the scrapbook is his actual will, which makes her his heir.  The father's will

 "in the sense of intention or hope, survives in his scrapbook as his desire that his daughter read his favored reading matter.  He materially rewards her for doing so.  His legacy circumvents the structures of biological kinship both through law and through the intellectual and spiritual connection that impels his adopted daughter to try on her father's reading interests by reading his scrapbook.  The will of other scrapbook makers likewise survives in their scrapbook's selections and arrangements of stories, articles, poems, and pictures."

Elsewhere, in a Louisa May Alcott story("Little Pyramus and Thisbe"), an impoverished street boy charitably makes scrapbooks out of the trash and detritus of the street where he is living and by presenting his art work to a new Immigrant family of artists becomes accepted into their household and trained up as an artist. From street graffiti like bricolage to the middle class? Apparently.

Arendt argues that Benjamin's use of quotations was novel, original, unique, and clearly for the upper class it appeared to be but WWS would argue that both men and women, demotically and rather passionately, had been clipping and quoting and challenging received authority and considering tradition and exploring their relationships with their biological and literary fathers (a very Benjamin/Kafka/Proust issue, from what I can see of Illuminations) for quite some time long before Benjamin or Arendt were born.

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